Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lowering the Bar

This is a terrible pun, but the show doesn't deserve any better. Steven Bochco started it anyway. Raising the Bar is his new TV series about lawyers, and you'll be pleased to note that his 27-year streak of not creating a good TV show remains safely intact. I remember when Cop Rock came out, and people rushed to say, "Hey, don't write off this guy. He's made a lot of classic television." The argument was fair at the time, but now that the cops on Hill Street Blues should be taking their pensions, it's harder to swallow.

Doogie Howser now eats shrooms and cannonballs whiskey while driving Harold and Kumar around, and the only person left on TV sitting at the computer and writing vacuous morals-of-the-story at the end of the episode is a rerun Carrie Bradshaw, who was on Square Pegs at the same time Bochco was last competent. In short, it's been a long damn while. At this point, the guy's in danger of being remembered more for pop-culture jokes at his expense than anything else.*

— The most obvious example is of course the aforementioned Cop Rock. It's incredibly easy to remember and finds common usage amongst people who like talking about pop culture but who aren't aren't actually funny — people like posters at Television Without Pity or Jay Leno. They think merely mentioning the name equals making a funny joke. This is too bad because it ruins a reference for other people and because the show really was that genuinely bad. Telling bad jokes about it minimizes the legitimate hilarity it offers for anyone iron-stomached enough to sit through it. Consider: musings on race relations told via the medium of poor people in crowds on the street breaking spastically into song and Bob Fosse formation. This isn't a show to casually throw away into the cultural toilet of hipster irony; this is something to be treasured.

Also, there's really no other place to put this, but it's still astounding that Sex and the City managed to not only rip off the "making observations at the computer on the lessons learned this week" thing, but also managed to be less trenchant than when the underaged kid was doing it. Carrie Bradshaw was supposed to be a writer, and instead her insights bookending each show came in at sub-fortune-cookie level. You can write a dozen yourself in minutes. Try it. For example:
And that's when I realized that the real secret of Friends with Benefits, is that the best benefit of all is the friendship.

Dating Porky Pig might be buying a pig in a poke, but that pig would poke you in all the right places when porking.

And that's when I realized [clichéd expression with two nouns] really meant [other definition of noun #1] and [other definition of noun #2]. Pun.
Remember that this drivel was supposed to empower women in some way. I suppose this is like being a southerner and saying, "Larry the Cable Guy... this man... this man shall be my ambassador to the rest of the world."

Bochco tends to return to the same well over and over primarily, I'm guessing, because he's not actually very good at making TV shows. I think he realized recently that his Law Show Retread Rate was no longer in balance with his Cop Show Retread Rate. Raising the Bar represents his attempt to correct his formulaic-procedural chi misalignment.

The show might seem familiar to you because it's L.A. Law, which Bochco also produced. Sure, they're not in glamorous sunny California and making nauseating amounts of money, but it's still a show about people who really really care about law stuff doing law stuff. And fucking. If it makes it past a first season — and it shouldn't — it's a virtual guarantee that by the third season the Law Stuff-to-Fucking Ratio will have dropped to 1:4, mainly because whomever writes the law stuff doesn't seem to know anything about it and keeping it around would just be a hassle.

The first giveaway that the people minding the store don't know their wares is how deeply everyone really really cares about things. Practicing law is, like every other job, still basically a job. Some people get into it because they feel a sincere dedication. Some people do it for the paycheck. Others are there because that's the pigeonhole into which their native incompetence directs them. But like any other job, people lose their idealism, compromise their principles, get undermined by bosses, go unappreciated by customers, miss out on their private life, lose sleep and generally get buggered about by everybody.

Decades ago, Barney Miller introduced the idea that people who are very good at socially important jobs might still actually hate significant aspects of them. Cops frequently mention how that show speaks to them because 98% of it is dedicated to people bitching at or with their co-workers while filling out paperwork they can't stand. Recently, shows like Homicide: Life on the Streetand The Wire chronicled how even noble public institutions often sabotage their own policemen and attorneys, who do the job less out of a desire to aid society and more to prove to any doubters and especially to criminals that they are, in fact, the smartest, handsomest, wisest motherfuckers on the streets of their fair city; and that the crime just committed is not an offense to the public order but rather an insult to the idea that this cop wouldn't catch you and this lawyer wouldn't slam the door on your ass for the next 25 years. So given that these ideas are not only new but also current within the public consciousness, it's amazing that television writers still persist in hanging premises for their shows on such pompous artificiality.

On one hand, yeah, watching dedicated people who are still committed to their ideals is probably more fun than watching people who've been screwed by the system for so long that they no longer care. But on the other hand, it's almost impossible to respect these people's selfish naiveté. The main character in Raising the Bar, portrayed by Zack from Saved by the Bell, erupts with outrage when he discovers that a judge would rather put someone behind bars because he looks like a criminal and is there at the time, instead of resolving to put the right man behind bars, even if he might never be found. And while his moral outrage certainly feels like the right thing to do, it's impossible to not also think, "What are you, some kind of retard?" It's simply not possible to get that far in any career without coming to the sad but basic realization that everyone first covers their ass, and that every job in the world is filled by a certain ineradicable percentage of racists, misogynists, the lazy, the incompetent, the venal, the ambitious and the outright sadistic.

The show takes itself and its message about Justice and Truth so seriously that you can almost hear the capital letters. In case you can't, Jane Kaczmarek plays an offensively stupid straw man character to show you the way things should not be and hammer home the truth and nobility of what Zack is doing. There are at least three different conversations in the pilot alone about such lofty concepts, and the idea is raised enough so that by the time you see Zack fighting back tears when talking to his client — one of likely hundreds he's had and one of dozens he surely has right now — it's impossible not to laugh. At that point, probably ten minutes into the pilot, the rest of the honorable edifice created by this show comes tumbling down, and you can't help but notice how many other things about it are aggressively mediocre.

The first thing you notice is the soundtrack. I don't know who misplaced it in 1987, but evidently someone found it and decided to use it. Enjoy the synth. Probably the most pleasure one can get from hearing it is imagining the giant white man's overbite the keytarist must be sporting while he jams with someone on a synthesizer just furiously jacking the tone bar back and forth. You may think this is all exaggeration, but you will notice these things just as keenly when you too are forced to nearly max-out your volume because the dialogue is mixed at inaudible levels. Either that or the person working the boom mic is Manute Bol — and it might be, since Manute's not being doing so well lately.

The show has visual problems as well. The moment when one public defender chides another public defender for being rich when the system is so underfunded is preceded by a pan across an absurdly modern, stylized and large office area that appears to have cost about $100 per square foot to decorate in the latest fashions. The exterior shots of New York have a gaudy patina that suggests someone CGI'd them until they met the taste and health standards of the cleanroom they keep Walt Disney's head and spine in. Not even the bar the attorneys unwind in after work resembles a real place.

On the plus side, it's better conceived than the gay bar one character winds up in. Not only does he engage in promiscuous sex with strangers he's just met, the bar and its thumping house music is just one guy waving glow sticks, sucking on a pacifier and wearing a construction hat and chaps away from hitting Total Cliché Saturation. It's as if the entire scene was written by taking a random mormon woman out of a Utah PTA meeting, telling her her son was gay, then transcribing everything she said after asking, "What do you think he'll do after college?"

The rest of the sex is boring, predictable and unoriginal. Someone gets bonus points for flashing the RAISING THE BAR title after a blonde woman basically pokes her boss in the crotch after demanding that he satisfy her urges immediately, but that's the apex of the show's creativity. Assuming that gag was even intentional. It's easy to assume it's not. The big reveal at the end, when the blonde steps out of Zack's shower is obviously meant to be a "gotcha!" moment, but if you didn't see it coming from minute #5 at the latest, you're dead. As in, air no longer reaches your brain. Like, you're actually dead right now and are just waiting for a telegenic kid and a bunch of clues involving the color red to explain it to you so you can move on.

But what's most telling about the quality of the show is something you could probably glean from a TV Guide. For one, it's on TNT, bringing their total of good original series to zero. For another, it's "brought to you from the mind of Steven Bochco," which ought to tell you immediately to give it back. And finally, it's yet another procedural retread actually starring a bunch of retreads. Just the names alone should tell you what you wind up getting.

There's Zack from Saved by the Bell, and he's still bringing it with same velocity with which he said catchphrases at Screech and Slater. There's the black guy from Angel, looking earnest, black and underused the same way he did on Angel.*

* — Full disclosure: I like J. August Richards. He's a not-mediocre guy who keeps having mediocrity thrust upon him because of poor writers or characters just two-dimensional enough to ward off "token" role comments but not two-dimensional enough to have any fun with. To say he looks like he's slumming it in this would be like saying, "That tiara looks out of place in that mass grave." I include him because whatever they wind up doing with him will be (a) not enough and (b) sucky.

There's the insufferable harridan mother from Malcom in the Middle; in a stunning display of range, she's playing a hateful, deranged harpy. There's the snotty husband from House that House cuckolded after curing his porphyria, still incapable of playing anything slightly sympathetically. There's even poor Gloria Reuben, who played that nurse or doctor on ER who got HIV and who Doctor Benton used to treat like crap and who you still didn't much care about anyway. And here she is playing a put-upon chief of underfunded public defenders, and again it's hard to care. In short, none of these people ever did anything especially good before, so the fact that they've all been placed in one great big mediocrity stew together is a good enough indicator that you shouldn't bother.

The dialogue isn't even memorably bad. Aside from Jane Kaczmarek saying, "You have the softest lips and the most magical mouth," the memory of which young men could use to delay orgasm, the only really delightfully stupid line was, "Class rage makes me hot." The writing doesn't reach the level of transcendently, amusingly crappy. It's just crappy crappy. That's how mediocre this show is: it can't even fail interestingly.